One Pedal at a Time

Reflections in Recovery

Bill with Cleveland Group of AA
I ran two marathons, one while I was still drinking and another when I was sober. The first was a little like Harold Abraham’s race in Chariots of Fire. It was a way of proving myself. The second was not quite like Eric Liddell’s, but it wasn’t about me anymore. I no longer had to prove I wasn’t a bum, as another character would say in another movie. Held near my 11th anniversary, the race was now a way to celebrate a gift.   

By the time of my 22nd anniversary, running had taken its toll on my knees and I had to call it quits. I switched to biking. It wasn’t the same, but it was the next best thing. The challenge was diminished further by the fact that, for a very long time, I had to ride my bicycle on a very flat course in a very flat state. Still, I was grateful. In the retirement community where I lived then, being able to ride a bike was no small feat.

Three years ago, I moved to my present home in a mountainous area of another state. My 29th anniversary found me biking up some pretty steep hills. One of these hills was particularly daunting. This is because the road leading up to it was very straight, presenting me with a long and unobstructed view of the steady ascent and the sudden, sharp upturn at the end.

Looking ahead from about 100 yards away, I would start to get uneasy. Psyching myself up, I would start to pedal faster. The last 50 feet or so I would get anxious and pedal really fast. As I struggled to reach the top, I was totally out of breath and completely exhausted. It was like that every time I went up that hill. Each time I wondered whether I would make it.

It wasn’t until the next year that I realized what was happening. I was scaring myself. By focusing so intently on the steepness of the hill, I was anticipating failure. It was like running up Heartbreak Hill in the marathon. The more I looked at the hill, the bigger it seemed. The more I feared I couldn’t do it, the harder it became to do it. My attempt to compensate by pedaling faster made it even worse. It would just make breathing harder, wear me out, and make me even more anxious, reducing further my chances of success.

Once I saw the problem, the solution was obvious. I had to stop focusing on the hill. Rather than looking hundreds of feet in front of me, I would focus my attention on the next ten feet or so. There was no question I could make it that far. All I had to do was relax, pedal steadily, and breathe easily. One stretch of ten feet didn’t look any harder than the next. Before I knew it, I had reached the top, with not a trace of anxiety or fatigue.

My strategy here was to apply one of our AA slogans to my particular situation. That slogan of course is “one day at a time,” translated into one step and, in this case, one pedal at a time. The main principle in the slogan is simplicity. The idea is to enable ourselves to achieve a long-term goal or complete a difficult task by simplifying it and breaking it into smaller and more manageable parts.

The reason it works has to do with the nature of emotions. My problem was not the hill but my perception of the hill. By focusing on the steepness of the climb, I was sharpening my perception of the difficulty I faced, making failure look more likely and thus triggering my anxiety. By averting my eyes from the hill, I was diverting my attention from the difficulty, thereby reducing it.

Though this involved external and sensory perception, I found that it worked for internal, non-sensory perception as well. When I diverted my internal attention from the climb and thought about something else, I would become less aware of how hard it was and, before I realized it, I had made it over the top.

I don’t normally start riding my bike till sometime in April, the month of my anniversary. With the weather warmer than usual this year (and the Magnolia buds beginning to burst), I went out on my first ride last week. I headed for my local Heartbreak Hill, the high point (literally and figuratively), of my regular ride. Almost 6 months had elapsed since my last. I was out of shape. Still, I had no doubt I would make it, one pedal at a time. The program works, even in the pedestrian parts of life.

“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T. S. Eliot. I saw it that way too—when I drank. It was Shelley upside down: If spring comes, can winter be that far behind? There was the promise of a new life outside, and so much death inside. I see it differently now. April is a month of thanksgiving. It’s when I was given a new life. And so, though I can no longer run, I can ride. When the time comes to celebrate my 32nd anniversary, I will get up on my bike and head for the hill.

[Posted 03/31/16. Image: Bill W. with Cleveland Group of AA, the first to use "Alcoholics Anonymous" to identify itself; founded by Clarence S., author of Home Brewmeister" in the 3rd Edition of the Big Book (now in Experience, Strength & Hope). See Big Book Q&A, Chapter 10, To Employers. For more on the subject of perception, see Spiritual Awakening: The Seeing Eye and A New Pair of Glasses.]

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